Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

People-Search Engine Ark Raises Biggest Y Combinator Seed Round in Memory

People-search start-up has led a bit of a charmed existence. Part of Y Combinator’s winter class, it debuted to the public shortly after YC leader Paul Graham posted an essay about “frighteningly ambitious ideas” — with No. 1 on the list being “a new search engine.”

At Y Combinator’s Demo Day, a short Ark pitch delivered in the midst of 64 other start-up presentations got the company commitments for $2 million in funding in a single day. And more than 250,000 people have signed up for Ark beta invites.

Less than a month after Demo Day, Ark now tells me that it has raised a $4.2 million seed round from investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Charles River Ventures, Greylock Partners, Intel Capital, SV Angel, Atlas Ventures, Crosslink Capital, Expansion Venture Capital, Felicis Ventures, Lightbank, Salesforce, Tencent, Transmedia Capital, and a bunch of individual angel investors.

That’s the largest seed round ever raised by a Y Combinator company. Update: Paul Graham of Y Combinator says the program does not track such statistics, so he cannot confirm that Ark’s is the largest seed round to date. Thus, I’ve updated the headline to “biggest seed round in memory” from “biggest seed round ever.”

The round benchmarks Ark as a clear front-runner in the most recent batch of the program’s closely watched start-ups. (Though to be fair, I’ve heard other top companies in the winter class are also cleaning up.)

Ark is almost too good to be true — a search engine that combines public and personalized search for people. It promises to transcend the current stalemate in social search between Google, Twitter and Facebook.

And it actually is too good to be true — right now, Ark is basically a simple interface to sort Facebook profiles by current city, gender, school, work, interests and other categories. Only 15,000 people have gotten beta access, as Ark has already fully maxed out its Amazon Web Services account by searching their networks and public data.

Ark co-founder and CEO Patrick Riley

But Ark CEO Patrick Riley, who was previously working on his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, is clear about his ambition. “Google seems so out of touch without the rest of us,” he told me last week. “They’ve lost their neutrality.”

The rift between Google and Facebook leaves social search dramatically underdeveloped, Riley said (and it’s a point I’ve argued, as well).

“Politics have left open this enormous opportunity,” is how Riley put it.

Part of what’s hard about social search is that Facebook prohibits outside crawlers. But Riley said he’s confident that he can get Facebook data, because he has gotten advice from Facebook CTO Bret Taylor, and has worked with Facebook’s legal team to make sure everything’s kosher.

So why should anyone care about “people search”? Beyond the age-old attraction of researching and stalking people, Riley described Ark as an automated “ of everyone,” that collates various social profiles.

Riley also said Ark is planning to beef up its social-discovery tools, so users can find new activity and interest partners inside and outside their networks. There will also eventually be an Ark equivalent of Google AdWords, where users can pay to promote themselves, he said.

Riley wants to develop a reputation and validation tool that fingerprints a person by comparing their social graphs on different networks. Because many sites and apps improve with a better sense of who is using them, he plans to provide social-data plug-ins to other companies.

After being founded just last summer and coming into focus during the three-month YC program, Ark already has a team of 16 employees, including co-founder Yiming Liu, also from Berkeley’s iSchool. And now it has a bunch of money to hire more.

Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.

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There’s a lot of attention and PR around Marissa, but their product lineup just kind of blows.

— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google